Pa. Senate panel considers changing fees for Right to Know

One sets separate fees for business, citizen requests

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HARRISBURG -- Less information could be available to the public about private contractors doing government work, as well as about volunteer fire departments, under changes being considered in the state Senate to Pennsylvania's Right to Know Law.

Other possible changes to the law would adjust how prison inmates (now responsible for about a third of Right-to-Know requests) ask for information, and would set up separate fee schedules for everyday citizens inquiring about government versus businesses requesting information for a commercial purpose.

The state's Right to Know Law went into effect in 2009; the bill under consideration would make modifications that some legislators believe are needed to clarify the law's intent and to ease what can be burdensome requests on some smaller government entities such as townships.

Of concern to the state's highest open records officer: a provision allowing government agencies to declare a records request "unduly burdensome," thus allowing the agency to bypass the Office of Open Records, and a prohibition on the Office of Open Records speaking publicly on pending cases, said Terry Mutchler, executive director of that office.

"There are some very good open government components to this law, but there are two or three particularly troubling components that need to be addressed," she said.

Several township officials testified Monday they would support separate fee systems for regular citizens and for businesses making public records requests that seem to be clearly for sales purposes.

One official said her township receives monthly requests for all new dwelling permits from a window company, requests from an alarm system company for all new building permits and requests for all swimming pool permits from a landscaping company.

"This should not be a township-workforce related function," said Robin Getz, a township manager for North Cornwall in Lebanon County, testifying Monday before the state Senate's government committee.

Open government advocates expressed concern with a section of the bill that would narrow the scope of records available to the public about private contractors performing government work. Currently, records of third-party contractors relating to the government function are public, not just the contract with the government agency.

"Many state and local agencies today subcontract inspections and other safety work to third-party contractors. PennDOT does it routinely," said David Strassburger, a Pittsburgh attorney who often represents media organizations. "The city of Pittsburgh's bureau of building inspections subcontracts most of its inspection work, too, as do various local and state health departments. ... If the only record that is public is the contract with the agency, then the public will never be able to scrutinize the critical work of safety personnel for various agencies."

Another hearing on the bill is expected next month.

An additional concern discussed by Ms. Mutchler that the bill does not address relates to charter schools, which she described as a flagrant violator of open records requests in failing to disclose requested information.

"They completely ignore the citizen, they ignore us and they virtually ignore the courts. Charter schools are ... the cancer on the good health of the Right to Know Law in the commonwealth. I don't know what the solution is. We try to meet with them ... but they just play by their own rules."

"This is the first time we have heard of this complaint," said Ken Kilpatrick, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, who was not at the hearing.

state

Kate Giammarise: kgiammarise@post-gazette.com, 1-717-787-4254 or on Twitter: @KateGiammarise.


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